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To some, complaint blackout bill unfair; to others it’s anti-consumer

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Need a dentist? A Realtor? A contractor? The state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs urges consumers to first check for a license and complaint history.

Consumers can telephone or write the department for the information or search a state website and find complaints going back five years, including complaints that are still under investigation or have been dismissed for insufficient evidence.

While the state and consumer advocates believe the system provides transparency, many licensed professionals contend it can unfairly harm reputations and have persuaded the state Legislature to limit disclosure to complaints that have been resolved and validated.

Gov. Linda Lingle, however, has placed the bill on her potential veto list. The governor explained that shielding pending complaints could be detrimental to consumers who need such information to make informed decisions.

Lingle has until July 6 to veto, sign or allow the bill to become law without her signature.

"This removes the public’s right to know, basically," said Bruce McCullough, the legislative chairman of the Hawaii Alliance for Retired Americans. "I think it’s anti-consumer."

McCullough and other consumer advocates said the state could consider reducing the length of time complaints stay on the state website — perhaps to two years instead of five years — but he does not want to lose public access to pending complaints.

Nicholas Striebich, an electrician who lives in Mililani, said consumers need the guidance.

"There are a lot of shady contractors out there. You want to be able to look up the contractor’s name to see if there are any complaints against him," he said, adding that, resolved or not, consumers get information to help make a choice.

But many licensed professionals object to having pending complaints posted on a state website (http://hawaii.gov/dcca/rico/) that can attract more than 450,000 views annually. The state prominently displays a caveat urging consumers to make judgments based on the outcome of complaints — rather than the fact a complaint had been filed or on the number of complaints — but professionals believe consumers will be influenced if they find a complaint history.

The state’s Regulated Industries Complaints Office describes the website as a neutral repository of information about complaints where there was sufficient cause to investigate. Pending complaints are posted but with no details.

Professionals worry consumers will presume the worst when they see a pending complaint and take their business elsewhere. Even disclosing complaints that were dismissed can leave a cloud over businesses, especially if a competitor has no complaint history.

"Anybody who has an ax to grind can post complaints against a licensee and besmirch their reputation," said Dr. Craig Mason, president of the Hawaii Dental Association.

Mason described the system as a "two-edged sword" that is disadvantageous to both professionals and consumers. He said, for example, that he was looking up civil engineers recommended by an architect and found three complaints on the state website. He said only one of the complaints was valid.

"Here I was, as a member of the public looking for information, and two out of three times I got invalid information," Mason said.

Tracy S. Stice, the president of the Hawaii Association of Realtors, said most licensed professionals recognize the need for public disclosure of complaints, but only after they have been resolved. Posting pending complaints for the months, or longer, that it takes to investigate can harm reputations even when complaints are frivolous.

"Absolutely, no question," he said. "It’s an automatic third strike if you’re on the list. You don’t have to have done anything wrong at all."

The bill before Lingle would amend the Uniform Information Practices Act — the state’s open records law — and give professionals a significant privacy interest in complaints that have not been resolved.

The state Office of Information Practices told state lawmakers last year that the bill represents a major policy shift on public access to complaint information.

Last year, the bill stalled in conference committee. State House leadership assigned state Rep. Isaac Choy, (D, Manoa) to research the issue during the interim. In a January memo, Choy — an accountant who would have any complaints against him posted on the state website — said lawmakers needed to balance the privacy rights of professionals with consumer protection.

Most other states, he found, do not make complaints public until due-process procedures have begun or have been completed. The bill would allow disclosure of complaints that have been resolved against licensed professionals, as well as any warning letters or intermediate actions taken before final sanctions or penalties are imposed.

Choy helped revive the bill in conference committee in April. The bill passed the state House 43-7, with one member excused, and the state Senate 18-7.

"The whole thing doesn’t make any sense to me," he said. "Why would you put up anybody’s case on a government website without due process?"

State Sen. Les Ihara (D, Kapahulu-Kaimuki-Palolo) wants Lingle to veto the bill. He supports the idea of reducing the amount of time complaints stay up on the state website, but he believes the information is valuable to consumers.

"It’s basically like an information blackout," he said of the bill.

 

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